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Big five bid to get hands on a green jacket

Alex Dimond April 3, 2012
Charl Schwartzel is the defending champion at Augusta National © PA Photos
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ESPN will be providing live commentary during all four days of The Masters from Augusta National - along with all the news, views and opinion when it gets underway on Thursday.

For perhaps the first time in the history of the tournament, the five best golfers in the world arrive at Augusta National for the first major of the year at the very peak of their powers.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are understandably attracting the vast majority of the headlines and attention in the run-up to Thursday's first tee-off time, but that is not to say they are the only two with realistic chances of claiming victory. World No. 1 Luke Donald, three-time champion Phil Mickelson and past runner-up Lee Westwood have all gained a taste for victory in recent seasons, and all know how to get themselves into strong contention at this prestigious event.

Last year, it was the lack of an obvious favourite (at least, once McIlroy infamously fell apart) that made proceedings so exciting - with the previously unheralded Charl Schwartzel storming through over the closing stages to win after what has already been described in many quarters as the most exciting Masters Sunday in its history. As praise goes, that is pretty high.

The 2012 event will be the 76th iteration. As always, the setting will be idyllic and the course layout immaculate. This is golf at its finest - the best players competing on perhaps the best course in the world, with the ultimate prize - sporting immortality - on the line.

Truly, it is a tradition unlike any other.

The Course

Full guide to all 18 holes at Augusta National

The tournament throws up such memorable moments almost every year. For that, the course itself must take much of the credit. Designed with the exact purpose of rewarding the best golfers only for playing their best shots (and punishing them only for slips of planning or execution), the 7,435-yard layout is the key component in any Masters.

Expert analysis suggests that the course favours long hitters (especially in recent times, after many holes were lengthened extensively), particularly those that hit the ball high and with a touch of draw (or fade, for the left-handers). This makes sense - more holes and tee-shots on the course demand a right-to-left ball flight than vice-versa, and the prodigious sloping of the terrain makes flying the ball the whole way to the target preferable to adding in the unwelcome risk of bounce and run - but the course does not like to limit the players who can contend.

After all; Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson and Mike Weir - three of the past seven tournament winners - were not among the game's biggest hitters when they won. But they do underline the one must-have component needed for any contender - a razor-sharp short game. With devilish greens and awkward bunkers, any contender simply has to be able to get up-and-down with absolute precision.

Half of that equation is putting - so pay particularly close attention to that come Sunday. More often than not, it is the guy who consistently holes out from inside ten feet over the final 18 holes (if not the whole week) who ends up donning the famed green jacket, and sitting in the Butler Cabin alongside long-time presenter Jim Nantz and Augusta chairman Billy Payne come Sunday evening. Schwartzel went further than that last year - chipping in twice on his way to success.

Testing both character and ability as far as they can go - that's the tradition of the Masters.


Ten to contend

While last year's tournament appeared to be wide open, with none of the top players in the world possessing obvious winning credentials, this year there are five obvious front-runners - to such an extent that it would be a surprise if one of them does not come away from the course on Sunday with the green jacket resting across the shoulders.

After successfully tipping Charl Schwartzel to come good last year (well, sort of), we break down the names to watch - both obvious and obscure - over the four days of action.

The Favourite Five

For the first time in a long, long time, there are five clear favourites (including two multiple former champions) going into the tournament. Even more significantly, four of the five have already won once this year, and all have shown enough to suggest they are at or close to their peak. While the green jacket is far from assured of going to one of these names come Sunday evening, the odds would certainly seem to be in their favour.

Tiger Woods poses with his winner's trophy © PA Photos
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Tiger Woods
Woods has not finished outside the top ten at this event since 2004, and has never finished outside the top 25 since winning on his first professional appearance here in 1997. He has added a further three green jackets, and won on his last professional outing this year, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational barely two weeks ago. There's a reason he's the favourite this week.

This will be the first Masters in three years that Woods has played in after an unaffected few months of preparation - he finished in a tie for fourth in both 2010 and 2011, despite the fallout from his scandal and an injury affecting his readiness for combat. Given the relatively smooth run-up to this week (bar a precautionary final round withdrawal at the WGC-Cadillac Championship), it is hard to conceive of him faring any worse this time around.

Woods' biggest advantage is his course knowledge; no other player of his current capability knows the course any better than he does. He has the experience and the general game to attack Augusta (which was changed at around the turn of millennium to provide something of a retort to his paradigm-shifting style), but questions about his putting remain. Usually so crucial in deciding the winner on Sunday, Woods has looked sketchy on the greens for a long time, and might crumble if drawn into a duel with another star name on Sunday.

Rory McIlroy shows off his new trophy © PA Photos
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Rory McIlroy
The Northern Irishman left Georgia last year a defeated boy, but returns for revenge an assured, successful young man. The 2011 Masters was all set up to be his coming out party; he entered the final round with a four-shot lead, but collapsed on the back nine to plummet out of contention with a round of 80.

The 22-year-old bounced back in unforgettable fashion at Congressional months later for his maiden major victory, but you sense he returns to Augusta with unfinished business. The course clearly suits his eye and his natural tendency to draw the ball, while he clearly has no fear on the greens. A winner at this year's Honda Classic (he has now won four tournaments in less than 12 months, approaching a Woods-esque run), he could conceivably run away with this one - or be one of the few players capable of matching Woods in a shootout.

Luke Donald poses with Donald Duck © PA Photos
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Luke Donald
The world No. 1 coming into this event after briefly losing the crown to McIlroy, Donald won at the Transitions Championship (on a high quality course) to return to the sport's pinnacle and assert his own Masters credentials.

Far from the longest hitter but still able to compete at the Masters despite that (he has three top tens to his credit, including a T-4 last year), Donald relies on his precise short game to keep him in the hunt despite the fact the par-fives provide him with less obvious birdie opportunities. The Englishman is unlikely to win at a canter in this event, but he has the poise - particularly over must-make putts - and all-round weapons to give himself a great chance if it remains a close fight.

Phil Mickelson celebrates victory in Texas © Getty Images
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Phil Mickelson
Mickelson just needs one more jacket to draw himself level for career green jackets with Woods, a previously unfathomable turn of events. The 41-year-old's body might be breaking down - arthritis is a fairly relentless issue - but he can still produce on the biggest occasions; with victory at this year's AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach (with Tiger also in the hunt) a recent case in point.

As a left-hander, Mickelson should not prosper at Augusta - the fade required by so many holes reducing his length off the tee - but his unrivalled imagination around the greens has helped him to three victories to date and that sort of innate talent never leaves you. The question for Mickelson is consistency - of ball-striking, and of course management - and whether, into his forties, he is simply getting too old to hold off the raft of young stars coming through.

Lee Westwood studies his trophy © Getty Images
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Lee Westwood
The fifth of this week's fab five, and arguably the luckiest to be included in this group. Westwood is yet to win in 2012, and indeed many of his victories in 2011 came in Asian events of either limited fields or limited prestige. But Westwood has form around Augusta - he was an unlucky runner-up to Mickelson two years ago - and has shown in his appearances to date that every facet of his game is close to its peak.

The Englishman can drive with unwavering consistency (when combining length and accuracy, it's perhaps between him and McIlroy over who is the best of the five) and has precise control over his iron play. From tee to green, he has few equals - but his putting comes and goes with the winds and his chipping frequently lets him down in tough situations.

The big question, however, surrounds Westwood's mental strength. He clearly now believes he can win a major (having finished in the top three in four of five majors between 2009-10) but that seems to have brought with it a different pressure - Westwood has started curiously badly in a number of recent majors, almost handicapped by the expectations he places on himself to make a good start. If he has cured himself of that unwelcome habit, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him contending come the back nine on Sunday.

Worth watching

KJ Choi saw Charl Schwartzel triumph in 2011 © Getty Images
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The winner is likely to come from those big five, but that is far from a guarantee. As the one major played at the same venue every year, it is possible to identify players that go well at Augusta National with regularity and tip them for strong performances accordingly. Here are a few longer shots that might be worth keeping an eye on...

KJ Choi
Two top tens in his last two visits to Augusta, Choi is one player among the established generation who probably deserves to claim a major at some point. He is unlikely to triumph if dragged into a shootout over the back nine, but he won't crumble if it comes down to who can hold their nerve. See also: YE Yang.

Adam Scott
An Australian has never won The Masters, yet Scott was one of three (including Jason Day and Geoff Ogilvy) who were only an inspired Schwartzel finish away from changing all that during the final hours of the 2011 tournament. Scott hasn't played much this year - which cautions against backing him too strongly - but has encouraging results whenever he has teed it up. You can also see him holing out without fear in crunch time, a valuable skill that often proves the difference in this event.

Brandt Snedeker is a regular PGA Tour winner © Getty Images
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Brandt Snedeker
The American seems to have inserted himself into the sort of class previously occupied by the likes of Steve Stricker, Matt Kuchar, Stewart Cink and Zach Johnson - good enough, and consistent enough, after years of winning on the PGA Tour that a major championship would lift their stock considerably, without really being much of a surprise. Snedeker already has a win to his name this year, and has finished in the top three at Augusta in the past. A strong performance is to be expected, and he is not a man to be fazed by pressure. See also: Bo Van Pelt.

Gary Woodland
A collegiate basketball player until making the late switch to golf, Woodland is a fearsome athletic specimen who is rapidly getting to grips with some of golf's technical intricacies. Some swing changes with coach Butch Harmon have affected his early season form, but the American is long enough to overpower Augusta and, having finished inside the top 30 on his first appearance last year (something Schwartzel did in 2010), should be able to channel that into a high finish and a course that can be difficult to learn.

Angel Cabrera
A former winner around here (in 2009), McIlroy's meltdown has probably seen many people forget the Argentine was actually in the final pairing alongside the Northern Irishman last year. A 65 to start at last week's Shell Houston Open suggests his game is still in decent shape; all things considered it would be a surprise if he doesn't finish firmly in the top 20.

Alternatively: Sergio Garcia, Ryan Palmer, Jason Day.


Predictions

All this talk would mean little without a few equally meaningless predictions also thrown in...

Winning score: 13-under
Winning margin:Two
Lowest round: 64
Low amateur: Hideki Matsuyama
Top debutant: Bae Sang-moon
Par three winner: David Toms

Word you won't hear all week: Rough (known instead as the 'second cut')
Word you'll hear this week but no other: Patron (instead of 'spectators')
Snack of the week: Pimento cheese sandwich

Top European: Rory McIlroy
Top American: Brandt Snedeker
Top Rest of World: Angel Cabrera

Winner: Rory McIlroy

Take it to the bank. Or not.

For tweets about The Masters all week, follow Alex Dimond on Twitter here

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk